A view from Tunisia – ‘Shaking their world’

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By Ron Houston

If anyone ever doubted the power of the media then they only have to look at what has happened in Tunisia over the past four weeks.

On the 17th of December 2010 graduate student Mohamed Bouazizi decided to take drastic action, setting fire to himself in front of a government building in the town of Sidi Bouzid. On the 4th January this year he died as a result of his burns, setting off an unprecedented chain of events.

The result of this action has not only changed a country but may possibly change the whole of North Africa, with further ramifications throughout the Middle East.  There will be a huge cost to the Tunisian population as a result of tourists leaving, destruction in some areas and foreign companies that are sure to close.  Even though large numbers will lose their livelihood, none of this matters to those involved in this monumental demonstration of people power.

I live in the Tunisian community, not in any expat circuit; all my friends are Tunisian as is my wife.  However, it took 8 days for the news to filter through about Mohamed Bouazizi and his action.  Reports of his tragic sacrifice spread mainly through Facebook and then via Al Jazeera’s news service.  People who live in Sidi Bouzid have family spread over Tunisia, as a result of the lack of employment there.  In Djerba where I live, it seems that most people have family from Sidi Bouzid; so news spreads even if it does take time.

Tunisians have openly thanked Al Jazeera for their coverage of what is now being called the Jasmine Revolution.  Without this coverage the Jasmine Revolution would not have succeeded as the national TV stations showed little appetite for reporting the protests resulting from Bouaziz’s actions.

Tunisian President Ben Ali, according to election results, had huge popular support; or did he?

Elections were fixed as there seemed to be large sections of the populace who did not or could not vote.  Old, sick and even dead people apparently voted without going to the polling station.  If they were on the voters’ role, the ruling party ensured that their vote ‘counted’.  People just accepted what was going on and in general did nothing.  Those who personally voted for the ruling party were either under their patronage or did so because it was normal to vote for them.  The end result has been a large number of deaths, property destroyed and the temporary loss of tourism – a major industry here.

What has this got to do with Scotland?  Well the lessons that we can take from this whole event are:

1. That it is impossible to stop the spread of news even when the national media is set against that information being distributed.  Tunisia had a well deserved reputation for media control, but on this occasion it failed because of Al Jazeera and the Internet.

2. The size of the country is unimportant when it comes to influence on the world stage.  Tunisia has a population of just over 10 million people and is relatively small when compared to some Muslim countries that are now waiting on events here to play out.

3. Tunisia gained its independence from France in 1956.  However at no time have I heard Tunisians say that they want a return to the days when they were governed from Paris, even with the prospect of hardships to come.

4. People will only ever accept so much.  Corruption and use of party patronage can be broken if it is the will of the people.

National pride and the ability to be free and attain self-determination are part of the fabric of nationhood; it is not just about the financial aspect of life and how better off will I be.

Scotland has nowhere near the levels of unemployment found in Tunisia.  Social services are in a different world compared to here.  My wife had to pay over TD230 (£100) to visit a doctor and buy medicine.  However the people have a lust for freedom and prosperity, just like anywhere else, and put up with a lot of hardship for that independence.

They want to be allowed to use the free education that Habib Bourguiba first put into place over 30 years ago.  He said that if he was ever overthrown he wanted it to be by an educated population.

Scotland has just such an educated population, however that population still needs to be educated politically.